Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Kinesics (or using Body Language in your novels)

Kinesics is the interpretation of body language i.e. the movement of the body as a whole or any part of the body.  The term was first used in 1952 by Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist, who argued that all movements of the body have meaning and that these non-verbal forms of language can be analysed.

Of course we’re all aware of how different facial expressions can reveal a person’s feelings.  There are seven universally recognized emotions shown through facial expressions: fear, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, happiness, and sadness.  I would suggest there are many more – concentration, desire, joy, frustration and confusion are just a few that come to mind.  As writers, it’s our job to show our characters’ feelings – not by statements such as ‘She felt confused’ but by showing her confusion as in ‘Her nose wrinkled and the crease between her brows deepened as she looked from Sam to John and then back again.’

Eyes and mouth probably play the largest part in showing feelings – contrast the widening eyes of interest with the rolling eyes of frustration, and the tight-lipped smile with the pursed lips. Eye-contact (or lack of it) can also reveal a whole range of different feelings. 

The movement of the head as a whole is important too. Nodding signifies agreement, slow head nodding shows attentiveness, fast head nodding can show impatience, and there’s a world of difference between the head held high and the head down.

The position of the arms can signify different things, and of course the hands have their own language, whether it’s clenched fists, cracking knuckles or fidgeting with a pen or wineglass.

Leg positions can sometimes be influenced by gender.  Men and women do tend to sit differently.  Partly due to clothing, partly due to sexual differences, men naturally exhibit more open leg positions than women, but there are still accepted interpretations of leg position.  The figure-4 leg cross with the supporting leg being crossed just above the knee by the ankle of the or lower calf of the crossing leg signifies independence.  With a hand clamped over the ankle of the crossing leg, it can reveal stubbornness since the hand produces a locked position, reflecting the mood of the person.

Even the position of people in relation to each other can be interesting.  Sitting opposite another person can create a feeling of confrontation, which is intensified if there is a table of desk between you and the other person.  Of course, sitting opposite across a table can be fine for lovers who gaze into each other’s eyes!

Studying kinesics can help us to use the right expressions, gestures, movement or body positions to reveal the emotions of our characters.

One the best articles I have read on the subject can be found at  This gives lots of examples, but also points out that body-language is not an exact science, and that a single body language signal cannot be considered a reliable indicator.


  1. This is an absolutely excellent post! I've already read it twice. Thank you so much. :)

  2. What a wonderful K-word! I wished I'd thought of it! *g* I've already done some exercises with body language and eye movements - very interesting! Of course, I'm a huge fan of 'Lie To Me'! Would be cool to have that ability, too!

    Greets from Germany!

    Karin @ Nofretiris Dream Of Writing

  3. Hi! Just stopping by from the A to Z Challenge!

  4. Glad you found it interesting, Jeffrey. Must admit I only knew a little about the subject until I searched for K words and discovered Kinesics. The more I read, the more I realised how useful it could be in our writing.

    Guten Tag, Nofretiri! I only knew the basic body language (like arms folded etc) and never knew there were so many.

    Hi, Giggle Laugh Cry, thanks for visiting!

  5. Great post, wish I thought of this one.
    Congrats on the book success.

    BTW 103 words for a blurb sounds good.
    (I'm talking the whole back cover of meandering drivel that isn't so impressive on a book I recently obtained):O)

  6. Thanks, Madeleine - I enjoyed finding out more about Kinesics!
    Agree that some back-cover blurbs either give too much away about the story or, as you say, are full of meandering drivel (love that phrase!)

  7. Great use for K! It's amazing how so many things we study can be used in our writing.

    This made me think of the sea witch Ursula in the Little Mermaid advising Arial that she could always use body language. :-)

  8. A valuable post, Paula. Too often we overlook the opportunity to use body language to dramatize a point and take the easy way out by telling. Thanks for providing the link to the article with examples, too.

  9. C R, you made me giggle - and wonder if there's a body language analysis for flapping one's tail :-)

    John, thanks so much for dropping in. Hope you find the article useful. I've bookmarked it and am sure I will refer to it frequently now.

  10. I love the final picture, there is so much emotion in it. I can kinda see jealousy etched on the girl in the backs face.:O

  11. i'll have to read this when i have more time. thanks for sharing.